Debunking myths about the Chalk River Mound (aka “NSDF”)

The Chalk River Mound or “near surface disposal facility” is a proposed giant above ground landfill for one million tons of radioactive waste on the property of Canadian Nuclear Labs, less than one kilometre from the Ottawa River upstream of Ottawa-Gatineau and Montreal. We debunk below two of the most misleading myths about the proposed facility. Please contact us if you need more references for the material presented below, or browse our list of all posts for more information.

Myth # 1: It’s only “low level waste”


“Low level” in the context of radioactive waste does not mean “low hazard”

This is a really big mistake that almost everyone makes. “Low level” simply means the wastes can be handled by nuclear industry workers without the use of lead shielding because the wastes give off relatively low levels of gamma radiation. But they can and do contain high levels of other types of radiation such as “alpha” and “beta.”  “Low level” radioactive waste can remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years and includes some of the most toxic radioactive poisons known such as plutonium.

No “Intermediate waste” in the NSDF is a red herring.
Neither “Low level” OR “Intermediate level” radioactive wastes are supposed to be disposed of in above-ground engineered mounds (landfills) according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. That is because both categories are dangerous and pose risks to all life on earth for the duration of their radiological hazard, which is hundreds of thousands of years for BOTH CATEGORIES of waste.  The main thing that distinguishes “Low level” from “intermediate level” radioactive waste is that “low level” can be handled without shielding or robots because its risks come from inhalation or ingestion. “Intermediate level” waste on the other hand gives off strong gamma radiation and therefore requires lead shielding and/or remote handling.

Much of the legacy waste at the Chalk River site is a poorly characterized or uncharacterized MIXTURE of “low” and “intermediate” level wastes.
The dividing lines between the categories are blurry. There are many different definitions around the world. Canada’s definitions are inferior to those in other countries. The wastes are not all sitting around in nice neat packages labelled “low level” and “intermediate level”. It would be the work of decades to properly categorize, package and label all the legacy wastes, and arguably, this should be done before choosing technologies for managing the wastes. We are in touch with a former engineer at AECL who was in charge of waste characterization for decades and worked as a consultant for the IAEA. He says the knowledge level of legacy wastes at Chalk River was and likely still is “abysmal”.

The proponent is playing games with Waste Acceptance Criteria to enable maximum disposal of legacy wastes in the NSDF
Definitions are being finagled to enable claims that “only” low-level wastes would go in the facility.  Canada’s nuclear regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, allows proponents to make up their own definitions of waste classes.  The NSDF proponent defines wastes with long-lived beta/gamma activity as high as ten thousand radioactive disintegrations per second per gram of waste (Bq/g) as “low level”.  Finland puts any waste with activity greater than one hundred Bq/g in an underground facility, 65-90 meters deep in crystalline rock.5.

The proponent’s contract with Atomic Energy of Canada states that it will dispose of ALL wastes quickly and cheaply.
The main objective of the GoCo contract was to reduce Canada’s legacy radioactive waste liabilities. The ONLY strategies being advanced by the consortium are the above ground engineered mound (landfill) and in-situ burial of reactors on the Ottawa and Winnipeg rivers.  Thus, the contract provides a strong incentive for the consortium to dispose of uncharacterized legacy wastes in the NSDF since it’s the only project on the table.

Myth #2: It’s a “sound project from an engineering point of view.”

The engineered containment mound is expected to disintegrate within a few hundred years and the contents flow out of the mound into the surrounding wetlands that drain into the Ottawa River. The NSDF draft environmental impact statement includes 25 occurrences of the phrase “liner and cover failure as a result of normal evolution” and three occurrences of the phrase “inevitable failure of the cover.”  The “bathtub scenario” is mentioned 30 times in the draft EIS. It is projected to occur in the year 2400 when the cover fails, water enters the mound and overflows, and takes contaminants into Perch Creek and the Ottawa River. The Performance Assessment for the NSDF includes a graphic illustration of the bathtub scenario, a table listing quantities of radionuclides flowing out of the mound into the Ottawa River, and a pie chart showing estimated doses of various radionuclides to an infant downstream in Pembroke. Given the expected eventual disintegration of the mound and migration of its contents into the Ottawa River, it would seem to be inappropriate to refer to the project as “a sound proposal from an engineering point of view.” 

The image below is a simulation of the “bathtub effect” from the Radio Canada Decouverte documentary “Chalk River Heritage.”

Updated list of First Nations and Municipal Resolutions against the CNL’s current plans for nuclear waste dumps

May 27, 2021

Assembly of First Nations resolution is here: http://www.ccnr.org/AFN_Resolution_2017.pdf

Example resolution in English:

Montreal Municipal Council’s unanimous resolution (press release and full resolution): https://cmm.qc.ca/communiques/depotoir-nucleaire-a-chalk-river-la-cmm-soppose-au-projet/

City of Ottawa passes resolution of concern about CNL’s radioactive waste activities

OTTAWA CITY COUNCIL ACTS ON COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS

That Council: 

1. Approve that the City of Ottawa urge the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories and its regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety OTTAWA CITY COUNCIL 8 AGENDA 51 WEDNESDAY, APRIL 14 2021 Commission, to take action on the City of Ottawa’s concerns related to the proposed Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF), Nuclear Power Demonstration (NPD) and related activities, including: 

a. stopping current and future import or transfer of external Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) waste from other provinces (e.g. Manitoba); 

b. increasing safeguards to protect the river during site demolition and waste transfer activities; 

c. preventing precipitation from entering the NSDF; 

d. providing the City of Ottawa with timely access to ongoing environmental monitoring data on the Ottawa River; and 

e. committing to prompt notification of spill/release events to City of Ottawa, and; 

2. Direct the Public Works and Environmental Services Department to provide an update to the Standing Committee on Environmental Protection, Water and Waste Management on City concerns being submitted through the NSDF Environmental Assessment process, and provide an annual update on radioactivity as part of the Drinking Water Summary Report that is issued to Council in fulfillment of the Safe Drinking Water Act 2002, and;

3. Request that the Minister of Environment and Climate Change initiate a regional assessment of radioactive disposal projects in the Ottawa Valley under the Impact Assessment Act, as amended in 2019, and; 

4. Direct the Mayor to write to the Ministers of Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change, Infrastructure and Crown-Indigenous Relations, as well as the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories to express the City of Ottawa’s concerns and call for action; and, 

5. Direct the City Clerk to share Council’s position and call to action with the Iroquois Anishinabek Nuclear Alliance as well as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario.

Passed at

OTTAWA CITY COUNCIL 9 AGENDA 51 WEDNESDAY, APRIL 14 2021

CNSC president should not report to the Minister of Natural Resources, according to IAEA guidance

Having the CNSC report through the Minister of Natural Resources who is charged with producing (and promoting) nuclear energy under the Nuclear Energy Act is not consistent with the IAEA’s guidance on “independence”.  


IAEA General Safety Guide No. GSG-12, Organization, Management and Staffing of the Regulatory Body for Safety says:

2.3  …the credibility of the regulatory body with the general public depends on whether the regulatory body is regarded as being independent from the organizations it regulates, as well as independent from other government agencies or industry groups that promote nuclear technologies.

The IAEA recommends that the CNSC’s independence from Parliament and government not be absolute:

2.6. Paragraph 2.8 of GSR Part 1 (Rev. 1) [2] states that:“To be effectively independent from undue influences on its decision making, the regulatory body: …Shall be free from any pressures associated with political circumstances or economic conditions, or pressures from government departments, authorized parties or other organizations”.  

2.7. The regulatory body should, however, be accountable to the government and to the general public with regard to effectively and efficiently fulfilling its mission to protect workers, the public and the environment…

More specifically, it is unacceptable that the CNSC’s funding requests come through the Minister of Natural Resources:

2.14. …Review and approval of the regulatory body’s budget should be performed only by governmental agencies that are effectively neutral in respect of the development, promotion or operation of facilities and conduct of activities. Such an approach provides additional assurance of the independence of the regulatory body 

Under the Nuclear Energy Act, the Minister of Natural Resources is Canada’s promoter of nuclear technologies:

Powers of Minister 10(1) The Minister may

(a) undertake or cause to be undertaken research and investigations with respect to nuclear energy;

(b) with the approval of the Governor in Council, utilize, cause to be utilized and prepare for the utilization of nuclear energy;

(c) with the approval of the Governor in Council, lease or, by purchase, requisition or expropriation, acquire or cause to be acquired nuclear substances and any mines, deposits or claims of nuclear substances and patent rights or certificates of supplementary protection issued under the Patent Act relating to nuclear energy and any works or property for production or preparation for production of, or for research or investigations with respect to, nuclear energy



The President of Canada’s nuclear regulatory body (CNSC) reports to the Minister of Natural Resources.  The Nuclear Safety and Control Act says

12(4) …the President shall make such reports to the Minister as the Minister may require concerning the general administration and management of the affairs of the Commission…

Hence, the Minister in charge of nuclear energy, including federal (AECL) properties for production and research of nuclear energy, is also in charge of the regulatory body that is supposed to protect workers, the public and the environment. 

 
This creates a lack of independence of the regulatory body. 

 
The Nuclear Safety and Control Act does allow for the President of the CNSC to report to a minister other than the Minister of Natural Resources.  From section 2, Definitions:

Minister means the Minister of Natural Resources or such member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada as the Governor in Council may designate as the Minister for the purposes of this Act.


A quick and cheap fix to CNSC’s lack of independence would be to designate the Minister of Environment and Climate Change as the “the Minister for the purposes of this Act”. 

 
That being said, both the Nuclear Safety and Control Act and the Nuclear Energy Act are more than 23 years old and have never been reviewed by Parliament.  Such a review is long overdue.

International Atomic Energy Agency still says “entombment” is not an acceptable decommissioning strategy

November 2, 2020

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Canada’s “captured” nuclear regulator, had hoped that the latest updated guidance from IAEA would allow entombment of old reactors as a decommissioning strategy.

Here is CNSC in 2017, “dispositioning” critical comments on the proposed entombment of old (and still highly radioactive) nuclear reactors at Rolphton, Ontario and Pinawa, Manitoba:

“Yes, the document referenced, IAEA GSR 6, indicates that
entombment is not recognized internationally, in principle,
as a preferred decommissioning strategy (entombment may
be considered a solution only under exceptional
circumstances, such as following a severe accident). The
IAEA is currently working on a document to provide
guidance with respect to their position on entombment
in situ decommissioning the applicability of entombment in
the context of decommissioning and in particular, the
regulatory requirements and expectations for applying
entombment as a decommissioning option strategy. There is
no scheduled date for the publication of this document;
however, CNSC staff will keep apprised of its development
to inform this EA and licensing review process.
Irrespective of the IAEA guidance document, under the
CNSC’s regulatory framework, applicants are responsible
for selecting and justifying their proposed decommissioning
strategy.”

That quotation is from this document: https://www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/050/documents/p80124/118863E.pdf
Page 9, top right.

The CNSC must have been disappointed when the new IAEA guidance document was published in 2018 and it STILL says that entombment is not acceptable as a decommissioning strategy.

The new IAEA document is

Decommissioning of Nuclear Power Plants, Research Reactors and Other Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facilities ~ Specific Safety Guide No. SSG-47, Vienna, 2018

The relevant text is section 5.17 on page 32 and it reads as follows:

Entombment, in which all or part of the facility is encased in a structurally long lived material, should not be considered an acceptable strategy for planned decommissioning. It might be considered as a last option for managing facilities that have been damaged in an accident, if other options are not possible owing to high exposures of workers or technical difficulties.

The IAEA explicitly recommended that Canada align its decommissioning strategy with this standard, during a peer review mission in September 2019. See a summary of IAEA recommendations to Canada here.

Undeterred, the CNSC is attempting to make entombment acceptable in its own “RegDocs”, pseudo regulations that rely heavily on nuclear industry created CSA standards, but that is another story, that is covered elsewhere. See Ole Hendrickson’s recent Op Ed in the Hill Times and the recent letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that requests urgent action to address nuclear safety gaps in Canada.

Critical comments from former AECL officials and scientists on CNL Disposal projects

Fifteen former AECL officials and scientists have submitted critical comments on the CNL nuclear waste disposal projects. These people point out many serious flaws in the proposals and the environmental impact statements.

These comments were all submitted to CNSC/CEAA. Links are to the CEAA pages for the environmental assessments for the disposal projects
Most of these former AECL employees identify themselves as “residents of Deep River” or “residents of Pinawa” and do not refer to their employment at AECL in their submissions (but see Michael Stephens’ second NSDF submission).   All are retired, but their former job titles or responsibilities – found through internet searching – are shown in parentheses, below.

Comments from AECL officials and scientists on the Near Surface Disposal Facility Project:

Michael Stephens (Manager, Business Operations, Liability Management Unit; Manager, Strategic Planning, Nuclear Legacy Liabilities Program, AECL)

Michael Stephens (2nd submission)

William Turner (Quality Assurance Specialist and Environmental Assessment Coordinator/Strategic Planner, AECL)

William Turner (2nd submission)

William Turner (3rd submission)

William Turner (4th submission)

William Turner (5th submission)

John Hilborn (Nuclear physicist, AECL)

J.R. Walker (Director, Safety Engineering & Licensing; Champion, NLLP Protocol, AECL)

J.R. Walker (2nd submission)

J.R. Walker (3rd submission)

Peter Baumgartner, Dennis Bilinsky, Edward T. Kozak, Tjalle T. Vandergraaf, Grant Koroll, Jude McMurry, Alfred G. Wikjord (all retired AECL Whiteshell Laboratories employees)

Pravin Shah (Manager, Site Landlord Services, AECL)

Greg Csullog (Manager, Waste Identification Program, AECL)

Greg Csullog (2nd submission)

David J. Winfield (30 years’ experience, research reactors and nuclear facilities, AECL)

Comments from AECL officials and scientists on the Nuclear Power Demonstration Closure Project:

William Turner  (Quality Assurance Specialist and Environmental Assessment Coordinator/Strategic Planner, AECL)

William Turner (2nd submission)

William Turner (3rd submission)

Michael Stephens (Manager, Business Operations, Liability Management Unit; Manager, Strategic Planning, Nuclear Legacy Liabilities Program, AECL)

J.R. Walker (Director, Safety Engineering & Licensing; Champion, NLLP Protocol, AECL)

Comments from AECL officials and scientists on the In Situ Decommissioning of the Whiteshell  Reactor #1 Project

William Turner  (Quality Assurance Specialist and Environmental Assessment Coordinator/Strategic Planner, AECL)

William Turner (2nd submission)

William Turner (3rd submission)

Michael Stephens (Manager, Business Operations, Liability Management Unit; Manager, Strategic Planning, Nuclear Legacy Liabilities Program, AECL)

Michael Stephens (2nd submission)

Peter Baumgartner (AECL Whiteshell Laboratories employee)

Peter Baumgartner (2nd submission)

Peter Baumgartner, Dennis Bilinsky, Edward T. Kozak, Tjalle T. Vandergraaf, Grant Koroll, Jude McMurry, Alfred G. Wikjord (all retired AECL Whiteshell Laboratories employees)

Peter Baumgartner, Dennis Bilinsky, Edward T. Kozak, Tjalle T. Vandergraaf, Grant Koroll, Jude McMurry, Alfred G. Wikjord  (2ndsubmission)

Leonard Simpson (Director of Reactor Safety Research, AECL)

J.R. Walker (Director, Safety Engineering & Licensing; Champion, NLLP Protocol, AECL)